GRAEME ANDERSON and CHRIS YOUNG look back on Sunderland’s incredible season.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON?
GA: I was asked this question – on the hop – by Radio Newcastle’s Nick Barnes, and almost instinctively said both derbies – Fabio Borini’s memorable match-winnner at home; the awesome rout away at St James’s Park.
I say instinctively because in any normal season in which the two teams are in the same division, they almost inevitably form the low or high point.
But, on reflection, you have to say that whole weekend at Wembley was one long highlight, with Borini’s goal, which astonishingly put Sunderland ahead, the highlight of highlights.
For sheer, struggling-to-get-your-breath moments though, it would be hard to beat either Phil Bardsley’s master-blaster goal deep into injury time in the Capital One Cup sem-final second leg against Manchester United or Vito Mannone’s penalty shoot-out heroics that followed.
One of those moments we were certain had handed Sunderland victory; the other one, we knew had. I also loved the second victory over Man United at Old Trafford because that was when we knew the Great Escape was bound to succeed. And there was huge satisfaction in the win over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea which earned Sunderland a nice place in the record books.
CY: “A really bad season full of highs,” was Niall Quinn’s apt description of this rollercoaster campaign last week.
Quinn is right. For all Sunderland have spent the bulk of this extraordinary season in the doldrums, there have been stand-out moments of unbridled ecstasy.
The two derby triumphs, the League Cup semi-final success at Old Trafford in front of a 9,000-strong away end and, of course, the Great Escape.
But while remaining in the Premier League was the principal objective for Sunderland, the iconic moment of this campaign for me was the Capital One Cup final. It was a once in a generation moment.
Wearside went on tour to the capital and over-ran it. Graeme and I were in London for 24 hours before we even spotted a Manchester City shirt.
Seeing Sunderland do themselves justice on the big stage and take City the distance, just made that Wembley weekend all the more memorable.
LOW POINT OF THE SEASON?
CY: For many, it came just a week after the high of the League Cup final, in the FA Cup quarter-final at Hull.
Gus Poyet faced the first major criticism of his Sunderland reign when he rang the changes at the KC Stadium and the chances of a second trip to Wembley crumbled.
Yet, despite the outcry, there was some logic to Poyet’s decision-making. He badly needed Steven Fletcher and Nacho Scocco to get some competitive action, while Sunderland had progressed against Southampton in the previous round with a much-changed side.
For me, the defeat at Norwich a fortnight later was far more harrowing.
Sunderland were pathetic in what looked to be a make-or-break game against one of their relegation rivals. There was surely no way back in their survival bid...
GA: There were many, but a couple spring prominently to mind as the lowest points of the campaign.
The first was the end of Gus Poyet’s first game in charge, the 4-0 drubbing and biggest defeat of the season so far for Sunderland, at Swansea City.
After eight games and three different bosses in the opening couple of months of the season, and just one point taken from their opening 24, the question was being asked, might Sunderland fail to beat their previous 19-point or 15-point relegation tallies?
The second was that flat moment felt at the end of Sunderland’s gutsy but luckless defeat to Everton in which Wes Brown’s own goal left the Black Cats seven points adrift at the bottom with six games remaining, three of which were away to Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United. No-one was giving Sunderland a cat in hell’s chance at that moment.
I should make mention of Sunderland’s second away game of the season too – the 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace. Paolo Di Canio’s men were abysmal that day after being unlucky against Fulham in the season’s opener and drawing at Southampton. Selhurst Park was when you got that feeling that Sunderland could be facing a very long hard season.
That’s my view, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who selected any one of the three games against Hull City this season – three real low-points, each game for different reasons.
For single moments that comprised low points, I would go for Ji Dong-won’s “non-header” at Crystal Palace – don’t think I will ever see the like again; and Paolo Di Canio’s posturing in front of Sunderland fans at West Brom – excruciating.
WHICH THREE PLAYERS HAVE IMPRESSED YOU THE MOST?
CY: Roberto De Fanti and Paolo Di Canio’s summer spending spree was rightly derided after plunging Sunderland into a shambolic state.
The two big signings which actually paid off were almost an afterthought.
Vito Mannone was envisaged as a back-up keeper, while Fabio Borini was a panicky deadline day replacement for Stephane Sessegnon.
But the two Italians rightly lifted the two end-of-season awards from supporters. Their attitudes alone, in the most testing of circumstances, have been exemplary.
Lee Cattermole has also risen to the challenge during the Great Escape. His tenacity and determination – coupled with a greater sense of control under Gus Poyet’s boundaries – were as key to Sunderland’s survival as Connor Wickham’s goals.
GA: I wouldn’t disagree with any of the three players Chris has selected, but, for the sake of contrast, I’ll pick a different three.
While Mannone, Borini and, in the latter stages, Cattermole were obvious stand-out players, I would argue the case for Adam Johnson, whose purple patch hoisted Sunderland out of the doldrums and earned him the Barclays Premier League Player of the Month award in January.
He had something of a “Sessegnon season”, flowering briefly and frustrating regularly – but it was enough to start tipping the balance in the Black Cats’ favour.
I was impressed by Wes Brown simply because I didn’t really expect to see him playing back-to-back games this season.
And you have to be impressed by Connor Wickham’s five-goal burst and powerhouse performances which earned him the Barclays Premier League Player of the Month gong last month.
He finally started to produce what we had all hoped he would be capable of.
Hopefully this is only the beginning for him.